Feeling Your Way Through The Headless Woman 

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The Headless Woman
Directed by Lucrecia Martel

Argentine director Lucrecia Martel has compared filmmaking to running a doctor’s office, but her approach is less clinical than that metaphor implies. The spookiness of the senses is her subject, and in the spirit of Vitti-era Antonioni her third feature, The Headless Woman, evokes through environmental means the skewed mental state of Vero (Maria Onetto), a middle-aged bourgeois blonde who runs over a dog and suffers head trauma in the collision. Onetto’s presence thereafter is that of a zombie, eerily smiling and sleepwalking through her dentistry rounds, extra-marital liaisons and social obligations, as a network of friends and relatives barely notice her disengagement for all their haste, chatter and self-absorption.

Myriad lower-income laborers also wander in and out of focus, and Onetto’s growing consciousness of her class privilege and artificial happiness manifests itself as guilt when she begins to believe the road kill was a young street boy. Martel also literalizes the title in decentered compositions that decapitate Onetto, while unnerving sound design amplifications and off-kilter framings render her surroundings queasily unsettling: when her senile mother rambles that the house is full of the dead we know it’s the truth. Unexplained narrative odds and ends (including a gratuitous lesbian subplot) eventually lead Onetto back to the status quo, but Martel’s original touch in a film indebted to a long modernist tradition of domestic disorientation is making her wraith-like heroine’s reality one big question mark, punctuated, appropriately, by the most sinister hair color change since Vertigo.

Opens August 19 at Film Forum

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